A Whale of a Tale

March 16, 2011 at 2:00 pm

Every great tale has a memorable protagonist, drama, and of course, a good ending. Many tales incorporate a twist in the plot in order to build up suspense and mislead the audience, bringing the tale to an ending that most of them would never have expected. Many storytellers throughout the ages have told many great tales, but once in a while, real life spins a tale that enthralls us all.

Gaya Island, where the whale beached itself

The Beginning: Once upon a time…
This tale starts on 15th December 2006 on the beaches of Gaya Island, an island off the coast of Borneo. It begins like every typical Friday, but soon, some locals will discover that life, is indeed, a stage, and they are to play their respective roles in the unfolding tale. A whale had somehow ended up beached in the shallow waters off Gaya Island. The first few hours were probably quite stressful for this lost whale, as curious onlookers got up close to it, some even climbing on top of it, and bumping it with boats. Help would follow suit, and within hours of the discovery, this helpless visitor had become the focus of a rescue effort that involved the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency, local non governmental organisations and the local diving community.

The Protagonist: …a beached whale…
The beached whale was identified as Balaenoptera edeni, commonly known as Bryde’s whale. Named in honour of Johan Bryde, Norwegian consul and pioneer of the South African whaling industry, it was first discovered in 1878, when ironically, a specimen had beached itself on the coast of Burma. The Bryde’s whale belong to the family of great whales, but are largely coastal and prefer tropical and temperate waters as opposed to the polar seas that are frequented by other members of the great whales family. Like all whales, it is endangered and is a protected species under the international moratorium on whaling.

Whaling ships like "Willem Barends" were common in the early 20th century

The Drama: …was valiantly saved…
The rescuers toiled all day, from morning till late evening, while spectators were kept at a safe distance in order to minimise the stress on the whale. And their efforts were rewarded, when just before nightfall, the whale was finally able to head off into deeper waters. The rescue effort was covered in many local newspapers in the following days, with praises coming from various quarters. The incident was the third reported case of beached Bryde’s whale in Sarawak, the two previous cases occurring in 1956 and 1957. The euphoria over the rescue was tinged with concern, as some experts worried about the whale beaching itself again.

The Twist: …and died.
Their greatest fear came to pass, as the whale was found dead two days after the rescue, almost where it was first found stranded. The entire event had evidently left its mark, not only on the rescuers, but also those who were caught up with the story. Almost immediately, plans were made by the authorities to ensure that the event was commemorated in its proper way. Perhaps, it was to show that, even in a calculative, cynical world, such a selfless deed would not be in vain.

The whale's remains being preserved

The Ending: Its legacy
The remains of Bryde’s whale that once died on the shores of Gaya Island in 2006 now rests in a place of honour as a special exhibit at the Sabah Museum at the state capital of Kota Kinabalu. After the state government decided to preserve and exhibit the whale, museum authorities begun the process of stripping the skeleton clean, and then preserving them and finally mounting the pieces to form the skeleton.

The preservation of the bones were a challenge due to their sheer size

The mounted skeleton of the Bryde’s whale, measuring over 22 metres long, dominates the museum hall, and is regarded as an important centrepiece of the museum. It remains as majestic and awe inspiring in death as it had been when it was alive. A fitting home for the whale of the tale, and a fitting end to the tale of the whale.

The whale resting in its final home, the Sabah Museum

The Bryde’s whale is on permanent exhibit at the Sabah Museum, Kota Kinabalu. For more information, contact the Sabah Museum at +6088 253199.

Photos (c) Sabah Museum, uair01, Michael L. Baird

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One Response

  1. Cornelis says:

    It is in fact a blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus). See here (p. 226): http://rmbr.nus.edu.sg/rbz/biblio/60/60rbz221-231.pdf. Bryde’s maximum length is about 15 m (49 ft), while this specimen was 22 m (72), about average size for a blue.

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